The Sandoval Signpost

An Independent Monthly Newsmagazine Serving the Community since 1989


Pining for Pinyon

Mechanized equipment chews through limbs and boles of “slash” remaining after a thinning in this woodland area south of Tijeras.

Forester's log
Pining for pinyon

—Mary Stuever
Approximately a hundred and fifty foresters and range managers met last week in Albuquerque to learn about pinyon-juniper woodlands. The conference was a joint meeting of the Society of American Foresters and the Society for Range Management. It wasn't the first time a conference had been held to focus on the “short stature” trees. As one speaker pointed out, six previous workshops from 1975 to 1997 had generated 272 articles on over sixteen hundred pages of proceedings. Of course, all this was before pinyon trees started dying by the millions.

Fifty-four million dead pinyons in New Mexico, one speaker suggested. That would be one hundred million dead trees throughout the pinyon’s (three different species) range in the United States, which takes in the bulk of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada. That's only about 15 percent of existing trees, another speaker optimistically offered. Tell that to someone in Santa Fe, Abiquiu, Prescott, or any other die-off “hot spot,” where at least to the untrained eye, almost every pinyon seemed to have taken the hit. The tree counters have interesting data, though. It seems that no size class has been immune. The deaths of small, little, medium, large, and granddaddy trees seems to follow classic J-shaped curves, indicating that all age classes are experiencing the same ratio of mortality.

Throughout the three-day conference agreement and disagreement emerged among the esteemed presenters. Everyone seems to agree that many pinyon trees died during the 1950s drought, but whether this current die-off event is much larger was debated. Bark beetles are universally blamed as the primary causal agent of the tree deaths; however, opinions varied on the drought conditions that weakened the trees and made them vulnerable to the beetle outbreaks. Some feel recent dry periods are part of normal weather fluctuations while others feel global warming is a key part of the equation.

Overall, there were few tears shed for the trees that had died. The general consensus is that, in the absence of regular fires burning across the landscape as in presettlement times, pinyon and juniper trees have been increasing in our woodlands and grasslands. The trees intercept and transpire rainwater that would have otherwise entered into groundwater, streams, and springs. In addition, grasses and wildflowers are more likely to flourish where tree numbers have decreased. When these plants grow beneath trees, soils are less likely to erode. A study at Bandelier National Park illuminates this situation. On a one-tenth-hectare plot in dense woodland, over a thousand potsherds were found in soil that had eroded from just one storm event.

The final conference day focused on ways to thin woodlands and to utilize wood products. Pinyon and juniper firewood can be used for more than heating homes via the traditional woodstove. Power plants burning woody biomass produce far less pollution than coal-burning plants. Not only is energy a marketable commodity, but energy credits gained by creating less pollution can be marketed to companies and countries in need of such credits to meet worldwide air-quality guidelines. A Mountainair businessman also shared challenges of creating new products utilizing pinyon and juniper wood fibers.

Pinyon-juniper woodlands cover approximately one quarter of New Mexico and over one eighth of Arizona. These lands provide water, forage for livestock and wildlife, wood products, and recently a vast expansion of home sites. Foresters and range managers who attended the conference, and those who will read the resulting conference proceedings, are better prepared to make management decisions in this important and seemingly fragile ecosystem.

Forester Mary Stuever can be contacted at

Commission approves purchase of bosque property

Almost two hundred acres of wildlife habitat and open space along the Rio Grande bosque in Valencia County will be protected from future development with the approval of an $800,000 purchase by the New Mexico Game Commission.

The commission approved the purchase of the 192-acre Rio Abajo property at its meeting on September 28 in Tucumcari. The money is part of a $5 million land-conservation appropriation by the 2005 New Mexico Legislature for conservation actions that will benefit wildlife and promote retention of open spaces. The legislation signed by Governor Bill Richardson is being used to buy land or acquire easements statewide for habitat conservation and restoration and to protect open agricultural land.

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